5 Strategies for Teacher Self-Care - ASCD
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March 12, 2020

5 Strategies for Teacher Self-Care

Social-emotional learning

You are tired, stressed, and frustrated. You're not afraid of hard work, but this is different. Nearly half of all teachers report that a high level of daily stress is a problem, feeding a burnout crisis that requires immediate action. The good news is that we don't have to wait for anyone else to take action—curing burnout starts within, by normalizing teacher self-care.

Michelle Obama affirmed, "We need to do a better job of putting ourselves at the top our own 'to do' lists." Her words may sound counterintuitive to people who spend their lives serving others. But we can't serve our students well if our own energy is being critically drained by stress and fatigue. Here are five strategies that teachers can start using right away that will lead to better self-care.

1. Trim Your List

The job of an educator is more complex than ever before. When you are busy—which is pretty much all the time—it's easy to think that everything matters equally. The problem with this approach is that there is simply not enough time in the day to do everything. Therefore, it is critical that you decide what matters most and spend the majority of your time doing that. The list of obligations and responsibilities assigned to you might be out of your control, but where you decide to focus is not.

Start by making a list of your top 10 priorities. Next, rank them in order of importance. Finally, circle your top three and cross out the bottom seven. What you circled is what you will focus on. Extremists say that you should ignore anything that is not in your top three. That is probably impossible, but you can give 95 percent of your focus to the top three and leave the remaining 5 percent of your energy to check in on the other seven items. I guarantee you will get more accomplished, have more time for yourself, and worry less about getting everything done.

2. Allow Yourself to Stop

I'll never forget seeing a former colleague of mine reading the newspaper and cutting out coupons—during the school day! I couldn't believe it. What made him think that this was okay? After further reflection, I fully understood their reasoning. This person was taking a few minutes to simply stop and relax their brain. It wasn't as if they spent a large portion of their day clipping coupons or reading the paper (5 minutes tops). In fact, most of their day was spent juggling 10 different tasks and doing so rather calmly, I might add.

As you go about your day, look for times when you can stop and relax your brain, even if it's only for a few minutes. I promise it will be a good use of your time. And, if you don't make the habit of pausing once in a while, your body and mind might just do it on their own—whether you choose to or not.

3. Embrace Vulnerability

Vulnerability is one of those things that sounds easier than it actually is. It can be particularly difficult for stressed teachers, already with their guards up against physical and emotional harm, to be vulnerable. Yet, embracing vulnerability may be just the thing to help teachers feel better. As Brene' Brown wrote in The Gifts of Imperfection, "We have to own our story and share it with someone who has earned the right to hear it, someone whom we can count on to respond with compassion" (p. 9).

Four years ago, I began a podcast called My Bad. My guests are educators who come on to share one big mistake they made during their career in education. These educators' stories are powerful, brave, and reaffirming. Yes, listeners learn from hearing others' mistakes. More than anything though, they learn that they are not alone—and they give themselves a little grace.

4. Reach Out to Experts

One of the most recent lessons I've learned is that I don't have all the answers, nor should I. This sounds obvious, but it has taken me many years to recognize this fact. As the classroom teacher, I was the one in charge. I earned my degree, completed my internship, and therefore should be able to handle whatever comes my way. But there are days when I don't know what to do and—at the same time—I have colleagues who possess certain skills and knowledge that I don't. As a classroom teacher, I realized I had two choices: pretend and fail or ask for help. I chose to ask for help and am not ashamed that I still do it quite often. Why not ask for help? I'd want my colleagues to do the same if I could help them in some way. Once I normalized help-seeking, I was less stressed and recouped the time I would have spent fumbling in search of a solution.

5. Pass Your Umbrella

While I believe these strategies will help you reduce stress and take better care of yourself, I have no doubt that there will be days when you feel as if you just can't go any further. I have been there. Six years ago, I had a mental breakdown that caused me to lose thirty pounds and many hours sleep.

Besides my wife and a few friends, I did not tell anyone what I was going through. If I had only reached out to others for help, I believe my situation would have been much different. As teachers, you hold the umbrella day in and day out, protecting your students from everything that could possibly harm them. You are their shield. The problem is, there comes a time when our arms get tired and our hands begin to shake. Continuing to hold the umbrella is almost impossible and can send us over the edge, physically and mentally.

Remember that it is okay to pass your umbrella so that you can rest and recover and, ultimately, take better care of those that you serve. If one of your colleagues reached out to you and asked if you could hold their umbrella, you wouldn't hesitate because that's what you do. You take care of each other and you take care of your students. It's time you start taking care of you.

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